Seventy years ago, before the Gunbarrel Highway existed, the remote outback it traverses was close to impassable, with only grizzled bushmen daring to confront it. Cue Len Beadell, the man employed to map the area for proposed British atomic bomb testing sites.
One of the last great Australian explorers, Beadell opened up several isolated desert areas (around 2.5 million square kilometres) of central Australia from 1947 to 1963 – the Gunbarrel was his first effort.
While constructing gunbarrel-straight highways was Beadell’s methodology, the name of this road is a misnomer. It has several twists and turns on the way to cover more than 1000 kilometres of washouts, heavy corrugations, stone, sand and food plains, linking Wiluna in the west, to Giles (Warakurna Roadhouse) in the east via the Gibson Desert.
Drivers generally need three permits to cross the area entirely – some of it falls within Aboriginal reserves. These are issued free of charge by the Department of Indigenous Affairs; although, for some sections, permits are only issued for two or more vehicles with adequate communications equipment, owing to the threat of a single vehicle breaking down in such difficult environs.
Part of the highway between Warburton and Warakurna is known as the Old Gunbarrel Highway – no longer maintained due to the construction of the more direct route, the Great Central Road. Those who seek the true essence of the area might opt to tackle this section, as it is the most challenging.
But be warned, it’s a ‘travel-at-your-own-risk’ undertaking, and before setting out, you must write to the Ngaanyatjarra Land Council, stating that you are doing so at your own risk and hold no one liable. This route requires meticulous preparation and extensive outback survival knowledge.